Porto, thanks to Skeffington.
For most people, golf in Portugal is mostly played along the Southern coast line in the Algarve. Lisbon and Porto for that matter seem to be insignificant in appeal to attract golfers. Well, I had a chance to tour some of the Northern Portuguese courses and not only was I pleasantly surprised with the quality and diversity, I actually thoroughly enjoyed the journey.
All thanks to Skeffington …
A little known fact is that golf in Portugal dates back to 1890 when British engineers working on the Portuguese railroads decided to build a golf course on the sandy banks just south of Porto. This was the third golf course to be build on the continent following Pau and Antwerp and it still hosts the oldest continuously played cup in the world. The Skeffington Cup, named after the founder and first president of Oporto Golf Club has been played for since 1891 without interruption.
Playing golf around Porto is a real treat. They call it Portugal’s top golf destination but I would probably say it’s most diverse golf destination. When most golfers consider the Algarve to be the top destination in Europe, Porto adds something not even the Algarve can offer. The region is dotted with UNESCO heritage sites starting with the city of Porto which is a hotbed of culture and effortlessly marries the old and the new. On the one side, you have the medieval city centre and the historic Gaia part where all the port manufacturers hold fort and on the other side, modern architecture and scintillating nightlife. Outside of Porto, Guimaraes, the birthplace of Portugal’s first king, Ponte de Lima, Portugal’s oldest know village and the magnificent Douro Valley which embodies what the region is all about.
We did a tour around the region which started of at Oporto Golf Club. The old worldly feel of the club and course sends shivers down your spine as you tee it up for what is a short course, by modern standards, with small greens and subtle undulations. You can play well on this course but you should not stray from the obvious. Hit the fairways and hit the greens and you will do well. As with all traditional courses, the railway line runs adjacent and with the beach on the one and the small town of Espinho on the other side, you could envisage this to be either in England or Scotland where a lot of golf courses had to be serviced by a railway line to get the people to come. When in Espinho, stay in the 5* Solverde Beach Hotel. The Solverde group owns and runs several hotels in Portugal all close by one of their casinos. From the Atlantic Ocean we ventured more inland to Amarante where the staff of the Relais et Chateaux Hotel Casa de Calcada were at hand to welcome us. This beautiful property with a medieval feel to it offers 30 individually appointed rooms, a Michelin star restaurant but also all the modern facilities travelers expect these days. It sits in the mountain village of Amarante and owns its own golf course which is an interesting layout to say the least. Carved out of the woods, hills and valleys of the Minho region, this course will test both your skill and mental toughness as it meanders its way up and down. You don’t have to hit the ball long but you do have to be precise on this course. Situated about 10 minutes from the hotel and with beautiful views over the surrounding hills, the hotel offers a shuttle service to the course.
Venture a bit more inland where the 5* Vidago Palace Golf Hotel awaits you. Build for the King of Portugal in 1910, the Royal Family never got to enjoy the place and instead it was turned into a hotel. It found itself in difficulties but new ownership and an extensive refurbishment brought the property back into its original state but with the added comfort much sought after by the discerning travelers. Golf was played at Vidago since 1930 when Mackenzie Ross designed the original 9 holes in front of the Palace. These holes were incorporated in the redesign by Cameron & Powell who specialise in making Mackenzie Ross’ courses more current. The Par 72, measuring 6,308 mtrs of the back tees starts in the treelined surroundings of the old 9 and heads out to the Vidago valley before heading back along the side of the hills with some spectacular holes to finish your round. This is a golfers’ course, play well and you will score well. Staying in Vidago Palace is always a treat and the rooms and facilities are genuinely top class. For those who want a more budgeted experience, the Primavera Perfume Hotel, on the other side of the road, offers themed modern rooms, again with all the mod con’s one needs to make a stay unforgettable. Needless to say that both hotels offer favourable golf packages.
Heading back towards the coast and passing Guimaraes, the alleged birthplace of the first King of Portugal, it is a UNESCO Heritage City and is a major tourist centre in the North. We end up in Ponte de Lima, Portugal’s oldest known settlement (1125) and its Roman bridge. The Axis Ponte de Lima Golf hotel is a contemporary design on two floors with the golf course a tale of two characters. The front nine offers spectacular elevation changes with holes winding through the forest and along hillsides while the back nine plays as a gentle parkland course with century old trees.
Our journey ends back at the Atlantic Ocean this time North of Porto. Povoa De Varzim is a seaside village with high rise buildings and is home to Estella Golf Club. Built in 1988 by Duarte Sotto-Mayor, a Trent Jones Sr. disciple, this unique and traditional links course, with one exception … Bermuda Grass, will test every aspect of your game. With the ever blowing Atlantic winds, Estella is not to be overpowered. Trust me, I’ve tried, a ball that doesn’t land on the fairway results in not being able to go for the green. With constant views over the Ocean and surrounded by immaculate dune lands, playing Estella is always a treat.
Our journey ended on the South bank of the Douro river in Porto where we were privileged to sample some of the finest food and port wines at the Taylor’s Cellars overlooking the old city centre of Porto. A great way to finish the week.
This voyage around the North of Portugal is one of diversity. From the coastal planes of Espinho and Povoa de Varzim to the mountain sides of Amarante and Ponte de Lima through the valleys of Vidago. This journey is as much about effortless hospitality, friendly people, honest food and fine wines and ports as it is about golf. Don’t go if you want golf and beer … go if you want to enjoy a week’s golf, culture, luxury hotels and fine dining accompanied by arguably which can be considered being among the finest wines in Europe. Fly into Porto and take on the North of Portugal. I guarantee it, you will not be disappointed.
For general information about the region ...
Oporto Golf Club - www.oportogolfclub.com
Axis Ponte de Lima - www.axishoteis.com
Estella Golf Club - www.estelagolf.pt
Hotels and Accommodation
Solverde Hotel Group - www.solverde.pt
Casa da Calcada - www.casadacalcada.com
Hotel Vidago Palace - www.vidagopalace.com
Axis Hotel Group - www.axishotels.com
Words: Jo Maes, President of the EGTMA.